?

Log in

No account? Create an account
do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: The New Guy (2/4)

July 13th, 2014 (08:55 pm)
guilty

feeling: guilty

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR



-o-

By the time Rick checks in with his assets and arranges for transportation to a safe zone outside the village, he’s not even sure what time it is. It’s still dark when they arrive at the airfield and the sun is just starting to come up when they climb inside the plane.

His teammates look weary, and with the stubble on their faces, they look older than Rick remembers. Settling down in his seat, he straps on his seatbelt with a smile. “What’s wrong? You guys look tired.”

Billy grouses as he sits down. “We are tired,” he mutters. “I don’t even know what day it is.”

“That’s because your body is not properly trained to live on minimal sleep,” Casey says as he settles himself as well. “Although in general I prefer to use my skills in more demanding circumstances.”

Rick smirks. “You guys are showing your age.”

“Maybe,” Michael concedes as he plops down next to Rick. “So does that mean you’re showing yours?”

“New guys,” Billy mutters as he slumps back and closes his eyes.

Rick’s smirk fades. “I’m not the new guy,” he says.

Casey shrugs while Billy mumbles something unintelligible. Now, Michael’s smirking.

Rick’s frown deepens as the plane rumbles to life. “I’m not.

-o-

The flight is short, and Rick dozes for exactly ten minutes. When they’re on the ground, he’s the first one up and about, thanking the pilot and slipping him several hundred dollars to ensure he feels like sticking around.

Their location isn’t so much a village as it is an agricultural checkpoint. There are houses and a small store, just enough to support the basic needs of the migrants who settle here throughout the year. It’s small and neglected, which makes it a perfect spot.

Rick checks his GPS and consults a map, nodding readily. “Okay,” he says. “This is perfect. It’s a straight shot from here with no significant obstacles.”

“Just a bloody rainforest,” Billy mutters.

“But no rivers, no mountains, no cliffs,” Rick says.

Michael leans closer. “We’re still looking at, what, a half day hike?”

“More like eight hours,” Casey says. “We won’t get through the terrain that quickly.”

“Eight hours?” Billy balks. “Isn’t that cutting it a little close?”

“It’s not like there’s anything to set up,” Rick says. “A local contact told me that the village only has one cemetery, which is conveniently located on the outskirts. With a telephoto lens, we don’t even have to get that close, which should keep us clear of the security in place.”

Michael nods thoughtfully. “So you want us to hike for eight hours in a remote location that we’ve never been in before to arrive just in time for a funeral we haven’t confirmed with a security detail we haven’t vetted,” he explains. “All with no sleep, no backup and probably a slim margin of success.”

Rick folds up the map. “Yeah,” he says. “That about covers it.”

There’s a tense moment of silent, but finally Michael bows his head. “Okay, then,” he says. “Looks like you’re in charge, Martinez.”

-o-

Rick takes point, leading his team into the woods. He has to keep his GPS active at all times, ensuring that he’s moving in the right direction, but overall navigation isn’t so hard. They’ve packed light -- just enough food and water for the trip, and they’ve each got enough surveillance equipment to get the job done.

Three years ago, this might have seemed crazy to him. Suicidal, even.

But a lot has changed in three years.

Rick knows what he’s capable of. Rick knows what he wants.

And he’ll stop at nothing -- no rainforest, no drug dealer, no outdated team dynamics -- will stand in his way.

-o-

As they walk, Rick thinks. That’s what he does; it’s part of the job. He’s got his plan, but a plan is never enough. There are more factors to consider, and with a mission like this, there are always caveats. Therefore, Rick’s accounted for as many contingencies as he can, and he’s spent most of his time during the first few hours of the hike contemplating all necessary escape routes and backup emergencies. He’s thought through potential cover stories and the most secure means of hiding sensitive photos in case of approach by security personnel. He’s assessed his closest assets, and thought out a potential timeline in case something should go wrong.

With all this, Rick hardly notices the hike at all. In fact, it’s only when he stops for a pre-planned rest that Rick realizes he’s drenched. He’s covered in bug bites, and when he stops to take a drink and eat a power bar, he realizes just how tired he is.

Tired, though, doesn’t do the rest of his team justice.

Billy all but collapses, slumping miserably against a tree. Even Casey’s face is slicked with sweat and he looks less pleased than normal.

“What?” Rick asks. “You guys can’t cut it?”

“I’ve been contemplating the return on the investment,” Casey says. “Frankly, I’m not sure I see it.”

Michael slings his pack down and opens his water. “You have to admit,” he says. “The timing’s not the best. Taking a long hike after minimal sleep.”

“It’s not so bad,” Rick says.

“So bad?” Billy protests. “It’s like torture! I’ve been better treated while being held captive!”

“Hyperbole is not the point,” Casey says. “The point is that this may still all be for nothing.”

It’s Rick’s turn to groan. “I told you guys--”

“Right, right,” Michael says. “Your little old ladies and your knowledge of the case file.”

“And my instincts,” Rick says. “Come on. Three years. How often am I wrong?”

It’s the wrong thing to say, and the critical looks from each of his teammates is answer enough. Billy, though, huffs. “You mean, besides today? Or yesterday, or whenever it was?”

“I wasn’t wrong about that--” Rick starts.

“You did get Higgins to green light this project based on very specific intelligent and a supposition you all but guaranteed,” Michael says.

“And I was right,” Rick insists. “He’ll be at the funeral--”

“Which is why we haven’t told Higgins where we are?” Casey prompts.

Rick’s mouth opens. Because that’s it. He’s accounted for everything, but he hasn’t accounted for this -- his team’s stubborn insistence on being difficult, taciturn and impossible.

And they’re not done yet.

“We did warn you,” Michael says.

“Aye, the best laid plans of mice and men,” Billy says. “They don’t just go awry, they go up in flames. Or through the rainforest, as it is.”

“That’s not even fair,” Rick protests.

“It’s okay, we understand,” Michael says. “Rookie mistakes happen.”

They’re not serious, and Rick knows that. They’re just tired. They’re joking, even. Rick should just let it go, just like he always does.

Every single time.

For the past three years.

Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep. Maybe it’s the humidity drenched into his clothes. Maybe it’s the damn bugs. Maybe it’s three years of baiting.

But Rick’s had enough.

Rick’s seen all the contingencies, but he still doesn’t see this coming: his own breaking point.

It comes out of nowhere, pushing through his emotions with an intensity he can’t control. All the times he’s held his tongue; all the time he’s laughed with them. It’s just one snide comment too many. It’s just one joking reprimand over the top. It’s one remark that pushes him over the edge.

And there’s no turning back.

“No,” Rick says, shaking his head, as his defiance solidifies. “It’s not a rookie mistake--”

“As you are a rookie--” Casey starts.

But Rick shakes his head adamantly. Because he’s put up with this. He’s put up with everything, and he has his breaking points. Three years. Three years. And if he’s going to leave this team, he’s leaving as their equal, not some junior officer they humor. “I’m not a rookie,” Rick says. “I’m not the new guy.”

“Oh?” Michael says. “Then why do you keep making new guy mistakes?”

“I don’t!” Rick all but explodes. “It wasn’t even a mistake. It was a variable that changed, just like they change all the time for each one of you. This happens to you guys all the time. Your missions change; your covers get blown; you make mistakes, and what? That’s just part of the job for you? But for me it’s somehow different?”

Michael starts. “Martinez, we have years--”

“And so do I!” Rick interjects, too heated to stop now. “I’m tired of being your scapegoat. I’m not your excuse, okay? I’m not your punchline. I’m one of you, and I’ve saved each of you more times than I can count. So no, I’m not making new guy mistakes. I’m not making any mistakes at all. I’m a spy, and I’m just as good as one of you. I mean, I’m not sitting here moaning and complaining. No, I’m getting the job done, because that’s what spies do. So you can sit here and whine and complain and blame me for everything, or you can get up and do the job we all signed up to do.”

He’s flushed in the face, and his voice is strained and grating. It’s a point he’s wanted to make for a while now, for years, really, and now that it’s out, he can’t take it back.

Hell, he’s not even sure he wants to. He’s refrained because he likes his team, and he knows they like him, and he respects them and all they do, but three years.

Rick has his breaking point, and it’s taken three years.

But not another second.

Turning on his heel, he screws the cap on his water bottle and stows it. “We leave in five minutes,” he grunts as he stalks off a ways in the woods. “Be ready or I’m leaving you behind.”

-o-

There are few advantages to hiking through the rainforest. Even as committed to making this mission work as Rick may be, he’s not so obstinate as to be oblivious to that fact. However, for this particular mission, Rick is aware of one particular advantage to their wearying pace.

They’re all so tired that none of them can fully acknowledge just how awkward it is.

It happens, though. Rick knows that. They’ve all had their moments, and they’ve all been in their share of uncomfortable situations. It’s just one of those things -- one of the drawbacks of working so closely with the same group of people over a period of years. They know everything about each other.

That often works in their favor.

And sometimes it really doesn’t.

Rick is still at point, manning the GPS and taking them along the straightest path he can navigate through the trees. The weather is getting hotter, and Rick’s chest feels tight with the continual exertion. He doesn’t slow down, though. Not with the steady sound of his teammates right behind him.

Rick doesn’t look back; they don’t come any closer. They’re keeping their distance in their own way, keeping a tentative peace in the silence between them. It’s hard to say what’s thicker -- the humidity or the tension.

It just takes time. Casey likes to disappear and be violent for a while. Michael likes to glare. Billy sulks like a petulant teenager and, well, Rick--

Truthfully this doesn’t happen to Rick very often. Usually, he just gets over it because that’s what Rick does. Billy’s a bit of a diva; Michael’s a bastard; Casey’s Casey and Rick…

Rick’s usually the nice guy.

The new guy.

Maybe that’s why they keep treating him like the new guy.

Because he keeps letting them.

Not this time, though. If Rick’s learned anything from the ODS, it’s how to handle conflict. It’s about never really admitting you’re wrong. And never saying sorry.

He banks around a fallen tree, picking up his pace a little more.

This isn’t really the way he wants it to end, but maybe it’s for the best. Maybe this just confirms it, they have outgrown each other. This is probably something they’ve all needed, but none of them have been brave enough to do it. It’s not that Higgins was right about the ODS, but it’s not like he was entirely wrong either.

Something has to give, sooner or later. And Rick’s tired of it always being him.

The new post will be good for him. It’ll be good for all of them.

As he presses on through the forest, Rick’s more sure of that than ever.

-o-

They’re no more than an hour out, and Rick has it all figured. He knows how they’ll fan out, taking all sides of the village to maximize their coverage. He’s figured out the rendezvous points he’s sighted on their trek. He even goes over the important phone numbers in his head in case he needs to call in for emergency support from local contacts or Higgins.

Rick has it all under control. He’s ready for anything.

Which is probably why he takes another step and feels a jolt of pang through his arm. He hisses, surprised, wondering what branch he’s managed to snag himself on.

Except, there’s no branch.

There’s just a snake, writhing and dangling, its fangs firmly implanted in Rick’s forearm. For moment, he’s too shocked to speak. Too shocked to do anything but gape.

He’s planned for everything; he’s thought up every possible contingency.

But he never counted on this.

A snake.

Biting him.

In the Amazon rainforest.

Miles away from extraction.

During an off the books mission.

The last mission.

Rick’s seen everything, but he’s never seen this.

“Hey, guys,” he says, voice wavering as he blinks away the haziness starting to creep into the edges of his vision. His tongue feels funny, and his fingertips start to tingle. “Guys.”

From behind, Billy jogs closer. Michael and Casey follow suit.

“Um,” Rick says, head starting to feel light as his tongue starts to go numb as he looks at the snake. “I think this may be a problem.”

-o-

A problem.

This mission has been nothing but problems. From their last minute departure to the mix up of the funerals. It’s been misinformation, half-baked intel and improvised solutions the whole way. Rick’s acted like everything’s fine because that’s what they do. That’s just what the ODS does. They make it up as they go and everything works out, and it’s not a problem when they get back home.

Not a problem.

This, though.

Rick blinks again and feels his knees go weak.

This is a problem.

He’s fallen before he realizes what’s happening, and everything goes white before he finds himself sprawled on his back, half supported in Billy’s arm. The Scotsman curses, and Michael’s face is drawn tensely in front of him. “Casey?” the team leader demands.

Casey frowns, moving deftly toward Rick’s side as he grabs Rick’s wrist. His grip is bruising as he reaches up with his other hand and takes the wriggling snake, pressing his fingers deep into the back of its skull and pressing down--

There’s a release and a rush of blood, and Rick’s ears ring as the snake is detached.

“Juvenile,” Casey mutters, squeezing hard until the wriggling stops. “Poor jaw control.”

“Juvenile,” Billy says, voice hot in Rick’s ear. “Is that good?”

“Maybe,” Michael replies while Casey rips up the front of Rick’s sleeve. “They have inconsistent envenomation, which means Rick might have gotten a lesser dose.”

“Or,” Casey says, pulling out his knife as he eyes the two fang marks. “It could have just unloaded a massive dose.”

Rick winces as Casey prods, flinching badly when the tip of the knife cuts into the skin and blood wells up.

“So we’re relying on luck, then,” Billy says, trying to sound upbeat but failing.

“What do you think, Martinez?” Michael asks, looking at Rick.

It takes effort to swallow, and his tongue is dead now and hard to talk around. “We’re never lucky,” he says woodenly.

“That bad, huh?” Michael says, trying to be light.

Rick takes a stuttered breath, starting to shiver. He shakes his head minutely as beads of sweat break out with new vigor across his forehead. “No,” he says, breathing starting to become thin and uneven. “Worse.”

Michael spares a glance to Casey, who’s starting to look tense. Really tense. Bleeding to death in the back of a broken car in South America tense.

And Rick realizes.

“Wait,” he stutters around his swelling tongue. His heart is hammering in his chest, but everything feels sluggish and dim. “I’m dying?”

Billy lifts him a little closer, and Michael looks back down at him with a grim expression. “You’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake, Martinez,” he explains. “We’re in the middle of the Amazon rainforest with no backup on a mission that’s not exactly sanctioned.”

Rick tries to swallow but it’s difficult. A shudder runs up his spine as tingling spreads up his arms and down his legs. “So you’re saying I’m dying.”

Michael glances out through the trees. “You’ve got emergency contacts, right? How long until they can get to us, you think?”

Thinking is suddenly hard, but Rick’s got every detail of this mission memorized. “After the call’s made, three hours,” he says, fumbling over the words as they start to slur. The sunlight through the trees is starting to halo and he has to keep blinking his eyes to keep his vision focused.

Michael shares another look with Casey, who shakes his head.

Three hours, Rick realizes. Three hours might as well be three years. It’s all too damn long.

Rick’s breath catches and tears sting his eyes. He curses. “I am going to die.”

“Hey,” Michael says, reaching down and taking Rick’s shoulder. He squeezes, looking Rick squarely in the eyes. “In the three years you’ve been part of this team, have we ever let you down?”

Rick nods. “Yes!”

“When it counted,” Michael amends. “Have we ever let you down when you were really in need?”

Three years, and they’ve messed with him, they’ve set him up, they’ve used him. They’ve lied to him, they’ve cheated him, they’ve made fun of him. He’s been their whipping boy, their scapegoat, their punchline.

But in three years, they’ve never let him down when it mattered.

“Never,” he manages to say. “Never.”

Michael smiles, just a little. “Then we sure as hell aren’t about to start now.”

-o-

In his head, Rick goes over all the possibilities.

If they call for extraction, they could provide triage in the meantime. If they drain the wound and flush it out, that might help minimize the venom, and a tourniquet could at least slow the movement from the limb to the rest of the body. Of course, with three hours, Rick would probably be at risk of losing his arm, but a carefully maintained pattern of releasing the blood flow might be enough to maintain the best of both worlds.

Plus, they could shave time off that three hours if they started to hike back and meet any rescue party part way. It wouldn’t be perfect or easy, but when paired with the prior measures it might be enough to keep Rick alive.

They could even split up and let Casey taken Rick while Michael and Billy finished the mission.

It’d be a shame, Rick thinks. To come this far and not finish the mission. It’s his last mission.

Possibly in more ways than one.

In his head, Rick has accounted for everything.

In reality, though, there’s not much he can do. Billy holds him steady while Casey treats the wound again. Michael is turned away, talking in sharp tones on the SAT phone. Rick wants to ask what the plan is; he wants to tell Casey about the best treatments for snakebites; he wants to tell Billy he’s starting to lose feeling in his legs.

As it is, though, all Rick can do is watch. The venom is deadening his limbs, and it’s like there’s a weight on his chest. Cold fear is starting to build in his stomach as his throat starts to close in on itself and every breath feels like a monumental effort.

All his plans and all his contingencies, and this is where it’s come to.

Michael turns back around, on his knees in front of Rick again. “Okay,” he says, calm and matter of fact. “This is going to get a little interesting.”

“Venom’s moving fast,” Casey reports.

“Too fast,” Billy adds in a low voice over his head. “We’re out of time.”

“Aren’t we always,” Michael says, trying to smile at Rick. “But hey, I’ve got a plan, okay?”

Rick’s shaking and he can’t quite blink away the spots in his vision anymore. He tries to wet his lips but fails miserably. “This mission--”

Michael shakes his head. “Rick--”

Rick frowns, grunting in frustration. “The mission--

“Leave the mission to us, okay?” Michael says. “You trust us -- right?”

Trust. Trust isn’t earned; it’s owned.

And now we own you.

Rick’s vision starts to fade and he’s back on his first day, sitting in the back of a car with three strangers, seeing his career go up in flames around him.

“Martinez,” Michael is saying. “Rick.

Rick tilts his head, half gaping at Michael. He’s losing control -- the control he’s fought so hard for, the control he’s earned -- and it’s all slipping away, between his fingers, with every pulse of his heart. Maybe he never had it; maybe it’s all been an illusion. Maybe he is still the new kid, sitting in Higgins’ office trading his soul for the promise of a job.

“Just trust us,” Michael says again, as if he’s been saying it all along. “You have to hold on, though. Just a little longer and we’ll get you through this.”

Rick chokes on a laugh and wants to shake his head. If only they knew what they were promising. Rick’s been holding on for three years, and he’s at the cusp now.

Funny, as he lies there, looking at a point beyond Michael ear. Because now he thinks he can see the other side.

“Rick,” Michael all but yells as Billy jostles him. “Hold on. Just hold on--”

-o-

“--just another second,” Adele croons.

Rick scoots out of the bed, looking back at her apologetically as he gets his clothes. “You know I can’t,” he says. “And you can’t either.”

On the bed, she pouts. “I know,” she says. “But we’ve been doing this three years.”

Rick’s buttoning his pants and reaching for his shirt. He pauses, looking down at his arm.

Three years.

It’s been three years.

Rick blinks, confused at the thought. There are two faded scars on his arm, small healed puncture wounds that he covers with his dress shirt as he slips it on. From behind, Adele wraps her arms around him and sighs. “I don’t want to go,” she murmurs against his back.

Turning, Rick takes her in his arms. He smiles. “So don’t.”

“Ha,” she chuckles. “As if it’s that easy.”

“It can be,” Rick says.

“I work at Langley,” she reminds him. “You work in the Middle East. We’ve been in a long distance relationship for three years.”

“Sure,” Rick says. “And there’s a consulate position opening up, and you’ve always wanted to be a diplomat.”

“Well, yeah,” Adele says. “But--”

“But nothing,” Rick says. “You move here. We get married, and then the CIA can place us both at our next posting. A diplomat’s husband is the perfect cover. It’ll work.”

Adele stares at him. “Wait,” she says. “Are you proposing?”

“If I wasn’t, would I have this?” Rick says, reaching in his pocket and pulling out a box.

Speechless, Adele pulls away. Her fingers are trembling when she takes the box. She opens it, then smiles. “Why, Mr. Martinez,” she says. “You certainly have improved your subterfuge in the last three years. I never saw this coming.”

“Good,” Rick says, drawing her closer again and kissing her on the cheek. “Those are always the best things.”

She puts her arms around his neck and kisses him back. “You don’t have to tell me--”

-o-

“--because I already know,” Michael hisses.

Rick’s head lolls, and he wrinkles his nose. His head is heavy and his nose is filled with the stench of sweat.

“Do you?” Casey asks pointedly, his voice closer than it seems it should be. “This mission turned from improbable to suicidal.”

“It’s not suicide,” Michael shoots back. “It could work.”

“Right, and all the bad guys could miraculously turn from their life of crime and turn themselves in,” Casey says with a grunt.

He’s being carried, Rick understands suddenly. He’s slung across Casey’s back and being hauled like a sack of potatoes. The indignity is hard to take, but given that his mouth doesn’t seem to be working, he has to take it anyway.

“The argument is moot,” Billy says. “If we don’t do this, Rick’s as good as dead.”

“We do this, we may all be dead,” Casey huffs, adjusting his grip around Rick’s leg. His injured arm is limp in front of him and Rick can see that it’s ballooned to twice its normal size.

“Doesn’t matter,” Michael tells them from ahead. “We go home together or we don’t go home at all. You understand? We always go home together--”

-o-

“--or we don’t go home at all,” Rick says, attempting to smile. “That’s what you always say, isn’t it?”

His voice wavers, just a little. It’s not that he’s scared, it’s just that he’s terrified. He’s not sure how he managed to get this far -- after his team had been taken, he’d been pretty sure that there’d be nothing left to do. On the phone, Higgins had given him the order to wait, but waiting would mean Rick would be coming home alone.

Rick can’t do that.

The only alternative is to get his team out, alive.

By himself.

Michael’s face is ashen in the moonlight, and he shakes his head vehemently. “You’ll never get us out,” he hisses. “There are armed guards for a mile, at least. And Casey and Billy can’t exactly walk--”

Rick spares a glance to his other teammates. Michael looks bad, with his face bruised and puffy and his arm hanging funny at the shoulder. But Casey and Billy are worse, with a matching pair of head wounds that has kept them ominously still and silent.

“--it’s suicide, Martinez,” Michael says, as if it’s an order. “You can’t do it.”

Rick swallows hard. There was a time when he would have thought Michael was right. There was a time when Rick probably would have followed Higgins’ orders and waited for backup.

Not anymore, though.

These years with this team. Rick’s learned a lot about how to be a spy.

More than that, he’s learned how to be part of a team, in all the best and worst ways.

He wets his lips, and this time his smile is genuine as he pulls Michael to his feet. “Watch me.”

Michael inhales sharply, face taut with pain. “Wait,” he gasps. “Just--”

-o-

“--wait!” Michael yells, a strange pitch of desperation in his voice. “We’re unarmed, we’re unarmed!”

Rick is shifted, and he hits the ground a little hard. He groans, curling protectively on his side while flashes of light blur above his head.

There’s rapidfire dialogue in Spanish that Rick thinks he should be able to understand, but the voices drone together with the ringing in his ears.

“Just look at his arm, geniuses,” Casey says acidically. “He’s got a snakebite.”

“For the love of God,” Billy pleads. “We can’t let him die.”

There are heavy footsteps on the ground, and Rick flinches when someone kicks him onto his back. He whimpers, his inflamed arm protesting the treatment.

“Who are you?” someone asks in heavily accented English.

“We’re with a film crew,” Michael says. “Last Chance Productions. We’re scouting locations for a documentary about the rainforest.”

It sounds reasonable, and for a second, Rick almost believes it. His team -- they’re good liars. They’re really good.

“You are lost then, my friend,” the voice says, low and hard.

They’re not perfect, though.

“Well, you have to admit, the maps are pretty hard to follow out here,” Casey tries.

“And when he took the bite, we ran to the closest village,” Billy says.

“We just need a ride out of here,” Michael says. “Please.”

Rick cracks his eyes open, and the world is tilted on its side. He sees Casey’s knees, and Billy’s shadow is long across him. Looking up, Michael is on his knees hands out in front of him. There are men with guns, and the figure looming in front of them is dark and imposing and somehow familiar.

Very familiar.

Rick’s been studying that face for months now, memorizing it and learning every nuance.

It’s Hernandez.

Rick’s stomach turns. His team has taken him to the village and is throwing themselves at the mercy of a hardened drug lord.

Panic spikes in his gut, and he tries to shake his head. He mumbles, but the words are unintelligible.

“Please,” Michael begs. “He’s dying--”

The man comes closer to Rick, scrutinizing him. “He will never survive a flight out,” he concludes.

He turns away and barks an order in Spanish. The men with guns approach him.

Casey tenses and Billy inches closer. It’s Michael who gets to his feet, lunging in front of Rick. “No--”

The mark turns, leveling a hard punch straight at Michael’s face. The other man crumbles, and the men with guns swarm them, pulling Casey and Billy back.

“No,” Michael says, trying to get to his feet. He’s met with a vicious kick to the midsection. “No, just let me--”

-o-

“--do this,” Michael says.

Rick stares at him for a long moment, absolutely incredulous. Finally, he lets out a bark of laughter. “No.”

Michael looks perturbed. “That’s not really the answer I was looking for.”

“Why?” Rick asks. “Because it’s the only answer that even makes sense?”

“I’ve got a bullet in my gut,” Michael reminds him with a pained wince.

“Thanks, I hadn’t forgotten though,” Rick said, still applying pressure with hot blood soaking into the jacket he has pressed against the wound.

“Well,” Michael says, taking a ragged breath. “You seem to be forgetting that we have to sneak our way out of a terrorist compound within the next hour without getting caught.”

“No, I haven’t forgotten,” Rick says.

Michael’s face contorts in pain, and he shakes his head. “Then why are you still sitting here?”

“Because if I leave you, you’ll die,” Rick replies, using his teeth and one hand to start ripping a shirt into strips.

“That’s why I’m saying, leave me behind,” he says. “I can be the decoy. I can buy you the time you need to get out safely and protect the intelligence. Let me do this. It’s the only logical solution.”

“Letting you die isn’t a solution,” Rick says, hastily shifting his weight to use a strip of fabric to wrap around Michael’s waist. The older operative groans, face going stark white as his breathing hastens.

Michael’s eyelids flutter, and he’s sweating now. “No point...in both of us…”

Rick ties it tautly, grimacing as he tightens it and Michael goes rigid. “But there’s certainly a point to saving both of us.”

Michael’s eyes are slitted and his head lolls. “Remember who’s in charge, Martinez,” he slurs. “You’re the new guy...”

Rick finishes with another sharp jerk for good measure. Michael goes loose then, slumping back lifelessly to the ground as he breathes wetly through his parted lips. “Sure,” he mutters, reaching down to haul Michael up and over his shoulder. “Then the new guy will save your ass.”

Michael’s weight is heavy on his shoulder, and Rick has to take a long moment to get them both stabilized. “That’s an order,” Michael mumbles, voice almost inaudibly against Rick’s arm. “That’s an--”

-o-

“--order,” Billy says with a small smile. “And you know how seriously we take Michael’s orders.”

Rick swallows, but his throat feels tight. The world is gauzy, and his head feels thick.

Michael leans into view, lips pulled not quite into a smile. He presses a hand to Rick’s head, and Rick shudders at the coolness of the touch.

Apologetically, Michael takes his hand away. His face is marred with a red graze across his cheek.

Chattering, Rick tries to speak. “You...took me to the village?”

“It was our only plan at the time,” Michael confesses, a little sheepish.

Billy smiles more widely, patting him on his good arm. “Besides, your plan -- all that hiking with no human interaction -- was a wee bit dull.”

“And this--” Rick says, struggling to get the words out. “--is better?”

“We were kind of out of options,” Michael tells him.

“But--” Rick starts, breath catching as he starts to wheeze. “They’ll kill us--”

Billy reaches out, soothing him. “Easy, easy,” he coaxes. “We’re not dead yet, all right? So let us worry about that.”

Rick shakes his head, starting to feel panicked. He’s dying and his team has gone and done the stupidest thing possible. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.

Three years, and he’s still getting it all wrong.

He blinks rapidly, but his vision is almost too fuzzy to make sense of anything. Michael is talking to him, and Billy’s grip is steady. Rick can feel his heart pounding in his chest as he claws his way back to awareness with every ounce of strength he has.

“But the mission--” he says, and that’s all he can say. Maybe that’s all there is. The mission. It comes back to that; it starts with that. All that’s gone between them, everything that makes them a team, and it’s the mission.

One last mission.

Just then, Casey comes back into view, and Michael looks up to him. “Are they going to give him the medicine?”

Casey stands, face settled grimly. “They’re still discussing it,” he reports. “Our stories match, though, so they might believe us.”

“And they might kill us anyhow,” Billy murmurs.

Michael shakes his head. “But they have it, right?” Michael asks. “They have the antivenom?”

“They’re not exactly being forthcoming,” Casey says. “In case you’re forgetting, your interrogation ended with a fist to your face.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Michael snaps. “If they have the medicine, they’re not going to let him die. Do they have the medicine?”

Casey purses his lips, letting out a tense breath. His eyes lock on Rick’s. “I--” he starts, and then seems to deflate. “I don’t know--”

-o-

“--if I can do this,” Casey says, and he sounds remarkably coherent and collected given the fact that he’s bleeding copiously from a gnarled blast wound to his chest.

Rick’s not sure what surprises him more: that Casey’s still conscious or that he’s admitting weakness.

As it is, his ears are ringing from the explosion. He’d been far enough away when their guide had tripped the landmine to avoid serious harm, but apparently he’s the only one. Still, he half hopes he’s hearing things.

“Wait,” he says, furrowing his brow. “Did you say you don’t know if you can do this?”

Casey looks more annoyed than injured. “I’m losing blood,” he says. “And I have a high pain threshold, but the nature of this wound is pushing me to my limits.”

Rick’s almost afraid to push the issue. “So, you’re saying--”

“I’m saying I don’t know,” Casey says, grinding the words out with a vengeance. He takes a tight breath and visibly attempts to center himself. “I have supreme control over my body; I have self control you will only dream about; I’m a human weapon, which means I’m still human.

Rick’s equilibrium has been shaken in the blast, and he’s still going over the stark reality of their situation. They’re in the mountains in Afghanistan; they’re out of radio contact; they’re far from anything resembling civilization -- and farther still from anyone who might help them. If Rick can get back to a road, he’ll probably have phone coverage again, but without the guide, he’d be going blind.

Without Casey, he’d been half defenseless.

“I don’t understand,” Rick says finally, for the lack of something better to say. Because he’s been blown up; he’s probably got a concussion; and Casey’s got a chest wound and he’s losing blood.

Casey’s face tightens in anger. “I don’t know if I can walk out of here, okay?” he snarls. “This injury is bad. It’s incapacitating. In a few minutes, I’m probably going to pass out from blood loss, and that will be that.”

“So, wait,” Rick says. “You’re saying…”

Casey takes a long suffering breath. “So I’m saying that it’s up to you,” he says. “I don’t like to admit that, but I’m not stupid. That’s the advantage of being on a team. When one of us falls, the other has to pick up the slack. I’ve done more than my share these last three years, so it’s about time you started returning the favor.”

Rick’s stomach goes cold and his fingers go numb. “Casey,” he says, unable to stop the small tremor in his voice. It’s not that he’s afraid of responsibility, it’s just that he’s not expected it. Not from Casey. Not like this. With blood all over the place and so little chance of success. “I don’t know if I can either.”

Casey glares at him. “Then I guess I’m dead,” he hisses. “Is that what you want?”

“No,” Rick starts.

“Well, then it’s up to you,” Casey says, and this time his voice falters. His face is draining rapidly of color and the tension in his body is starting to abate. “This one, it’s going to be all on you.”

Rick’s stomach churns. “And if I can’t?”

Casey’s lips quirk into a humorless smile. “Then we’re both dead, I guess.”

It’s so matter of fact, that it should be unsettling.

But somehow, in the midst of likely tragedy and probable failure, Rick realizes that basic essence of Casey’s words. Not that he’s hurt or that he’s fallible. Not that the task is daunting or damn near impossible.

But that he trusts Rick.

Willingly or not, he trusts Rick.

That’s the power of a team.

“Okay, then,” Rick says, mouth tipping into a small smile as he reaches down for Casey. “One rescue, coming right up.”

Casey groans, eyes starting to loll back. “I feel better--”

-o-

“--already,” Casey mutters.

“You know, your sarcasm is not overly helpful,” Billy whispers back.

Rick tries to open his eyes, but the shadows have deepened now. They’re not outside, but the floor is dirt. And he’s cold. So, so cold.

“This isn’t even a plan,” Casey replies in a heated tone. “This is--”

“Our only option,” Michael cuts him off. “We keep telling them the same thing.”

“And count on the benevolence of drug lords?” Casey asks.

“He has a point,” Billy says with an apologetic shrug. He cast a glance down at Rick. “But it is his mother’s funeral. Maybe he’ll be feeling unusually grandiose.”

“Rick doesn’t have time--” Casey starts.

“Rick doesn’t have any other options,” Michael cuts him off. “I just wish they’d make up their damn minds--”

Billy offers Rick a smile. “All under control, mate,” he lies. “We’ll have you out of here in no time.”

Rick tries to shake his head, but all his protests get lost in his throat. His breath comes in thin, labored gasps and it’s like ice water is running through his veins.

They’re liars, every last one of them. Liars and cheaters and damn it all if Rick doesn’t want to believe them, now more than ever.

There’s a noise from outside, and his teammates jerk up stiffly, and Michael’s on his feet when the armed men come in. “Please,” Michael says, arms out. “Just let us help him--”

The men push forward, one grabbing Michael and wrenching his hands behind him. Casey is on his feet, lashing out at the next guard while Billy positions himself protectively in front of Rick.

“No,” Michael yells, but he’s cut off with a pained grunt. “Casey, no--”

Another guard falls and four more enter. Someone pulls a gun, and Billy tenses, ready to lunge while Casey takes on the next wave.

“Please--” Michael calls out.

There’s a series of meaty thunks, and then the metallic sound of a gun being cocked.

Michael’s voice is as desperate as Rick’s ever heard it. “Damn it, listen--

Then, cutting through the din, the sound of a gunshot.

And Billy’s falling--

-o-

--and he hits the ground, hard. Across the entryway, Rick’s too late to stop his fall, and he skids across the floor wildly as their asset flees in the opposite direction. Rick thinks he should follow her -- the entire mission hinges on her -- but Billy’s rigid on the floor.

Grim, Rick bends down lower. “Billy?” he asks. “Billy, I need to see--”

Billy grits his teeth and shakes his head. When he looks up at Rick, his eyes are wide and his face is ghostly white.

“She stabbed me,” he breathes, almost indignantly as he curls around his abdomen and his inhalations quicken. He pulls away his hand, and it’s coated red with blood. “She stabbed me.

For a second, Rick can only stare. He can’t see the wound through Billy’s shirt, but the blood is dark against the light colored dress shirt.

Billy laughs, a coarse sound that catches in his throat with a sob. “She stabbed me.”

“Well,” Rick says, shrugging out of his jacket and balling it up. “We did classify her as a risky asset due to the fact that she’s got family on the inside of the Russian mob and another one of her handlers ended up dead.”

Billy grunts in pain as Rick rolls him on his back and presses down against the wound. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

Rick shakes his head. “No, uh,” he says. “I just...it’s not really surprising.”

Billy groans, head flopping back against the linoleum of the abandoned building where they’d been arranging meets. They’d been in town for two weeks building this relationship. Michael had had his reservations, but Billy had felt good about the correspondence. “The probabilities be damned,” Billy says with his eyes still squeezed shut. “It takes a certain kind of person to push a blade through someone’s flesh.”

“No offense, Billy,” Rick says, digging through his pocket to get his cell phone. “But I think maybe you misjudged this one.”

Billy’s eyes open, and they’re glassy with pain. He shakes his head tautly, face drawn grimly. “People deserve the benefit of the doubt.”

“She stabbed you,” Rick reminds him.

“What if she’d been found out, though? What if they were holding her brother for ransom? What if she had no choice?”

Rick presses a frantic text to Michael, blood smearing over the face. “But she stabbed you--”

“It’s not what we do, it’s why,” Billy says, hissing in pain as his legs writhe a little. “After all this time--”

“Oh, no,” Rick says. “You’re not going to lecture me now. You don’t get to play mentor when I’m the one saving your ass this time.”

Billy smiles weakly. “You’ll never learn it all,” he says, starting to relax, the tension slipping from his upper body. “Trust me…”

His eyes start to flutter and his head lolls. Fear wells up in Rick’s gut and he reaches out, phone still in hand, tapping Billy’s cheek. “Hey, hey, hey,” he says. “No sleeping, okay? Teach me the lesson, okay? You need to stay awake.”

Billy’s eyes open again, but they’re more unfocused now. Rick can feel Billy’s blood pumping against his hand. “Just remember,” he says, his accent heavier suddenly. “It’s not what we do--”

-o-

“--but why,” a gruff voice concludes, and it takes Rick a long moment to realize he’s not talking to Billy anymore. It takes an even longer moment to realize his eyes are open, and someone is looking him straight in the eye. “Why should I help you?”

This isn’t the kind of question anyone wants to be asked, not when the person asking is a notoriously drug dealer who kills indiscriminately and operates an insanely profitable criminal organization. Because it seems like the epitome of a rhetorical question in the worst possible way.

Not that Rick can speak anyway. The chills are too pronounced now, and his jaw is so rigid that he can no longer move it.

“I can neither confirm nor deny your identity,” the man continues with a casual shrug. “It is not in my nature to give second chances. I know some think me weak because I am younger than most, but I assure you, I did not ascend to this position by being weak, my friend.”

Rick doesn’t doubt it. Even if not for his current helpless state, he’s done all the research. You don’t have to spend years at something to be an expert. In the back of his mind, Rick thinks about paying him the compliment or at least trying to corroborate whatever story his team has pitched on the fly, but as it is, he’s having too much trouble breathing to do much of anything.

That doesn’t seem to matter, though. The man sighs. “I did not come here for business, though,” he says. “My mother, she did not always understand. Mothers are very protective.”

Protective, Rick tries to nod. His own mother would be apoplectic if she knew Rick were dying in South America.

Again.

“I have mostly accepted that I cannot always make her happy,” he continues. “I told myself that was okay, that my job came first. If I did not put myself first, no one would.”

That might be well and good in another profession.

Rick’s trembling with no sensation in his arms or legs. Consciousness is fleeting.

“But I buried my mother today,” he says. “No matter who they say I am, such things are not easy for me. It is only in times of need that we recognize the things that matter. I did not tell my mother how much I cared for her, and now it is too late.”

He pauses, thoughtfully. Rick would be inclined to indulge him were he actually able to breathe. As it is, he’s gasping now, expending every last ounce of energy to just stay alive.

“You are dying, too, my friend,” he says with a sad shake of his head. “Your friends, though. They care about you. They plead for your life. I do not know if they are liars, but I do know they risk much for your sake. Tell me, are they who they say you are?”

Rick inhales with a wheeze, his entire chest clenched in agony. There’s a vice on his inside, and his consciousness is waning past the point he knows how to control. But the mission.

“They are--” he starts, but falters badly, the words garbled and almost indistinguishable. “They’re everything--” he says, all in a rush, breathless in the wake. The blackness is rising for him, threatening to take him under. He feels tears well at the corners of his eyes, and his throat seizes as he starts to succumb to the pain.

“The sentimentality is touching,” the man says with a rueful smile. “But you could all be liars and good men in equal turns. The question I keep coming back to on this day more than any other, is what actually matters? Does the job come first? Or do the bonds we form with those around us? It is a question of life and death, and there is so much death this does. One more life, one more death, it doesn’t--”

-o-

“--matter,” Michael says angrily as they pull Rick up off the floor. There’s still glass and broken wood everywhere, and Rick thinks about apologizing for the mess. He can’t quite find his voice, though, and he catches himself with a gasp as Billy and Casey help him another step.

“But if they come back,” Felipe says fretfully.

“The job is done,” Michael says. “Your shop is burned. I think it’s pretty safe to say we won’t be calling you again.”

“But--”

“But you’ve done your job,” Michael tells him. “That’s all we’re going to ask of you; it’s done.”

“The mission--”

“Our mission is no longer your mission,” Michael says. “You have my number, but don’t expect me to come running unless you’ve got something big.”

It’s not quite callous, but it’s a far cry from sympathetic, and Rick wants to stop and turn back. Felipe is just a scared kid; he’s in over his head; this isn’t his fault.

But seeing as Rick’s still bleeding and unable to walk on his own, he doesn’t have much choice but to keep walking.

Outside, he lifts his head. “It wasn’t his fault,” he says.

Michael is ahead of them, opening the van. “No,” he says. “But he’s not a part of this anymore.”

“But he’s right,” Rick pants, holding back a cry as his leg hits upon the ground. “The mission--”

“Look,” Michael says. “We know you haven’t been on the team very long, but you should know something about us now. It’s not always about the mission.

Rick frowns. “But we went against Higgins--”

“He said it’s not always about the mission,” Casey corrects.

“Or perhaps not the mission you’re thinking about,” Billy adds.

They ease Rick into the back of the van, and he tries to position himself on the seat in a way that doesn’t result in agony. It’s not very successful. “You guys risked everything to be here. You put everything on the table.”

Billy and Casey exchange a look. Michael’s face is stony. “Not everything.”

Billy pats his arm. “Something to talk about later,” he says. “Right now, I reckon we ought to save your life.”

Rick is still confused.

“If we’ll go all this way for a kid we hardly know, what do you think we won’t do for one of our own?” Casey asks. “It’s not rocket science.”

“No,” Michael says, getting into the driver’s seat. “It’s just teamwork.”

The engine rumbles to life, and Rick winces as he tries fruitlessly to get comfortable. “And if this doesn’t work?”

Michael adjusts the mirrors. “Trust us,” he says. “We’ll make it--”

-o-

“--work,” someone is saying in broken English. “You must live.”

Another person mutters a curse in Spanish. Rick tries to open his eyes, but it’s too much effort. He’s burning now, flames licking through his vein and searing into his brain. His very heart is on fire and he’s choking on the smoke.

He doesn’t know much, but he knows he’s alone. The people around him are strangers, and the absence of his teammates is glaringly clear to him.

He’s dying, but that part scares him more than all the rest.

“Please,” the first voice says. “You must live, for all of us. The medicine -- is it?”

Another voice responds, the Spanish succinct and to the point. Someone spreads a cool cloth over his forehead, but Rick’s too miserable for it to do much good. It’s like a drop of water on a raging inferno, and it’s not enough--

“The venom is strong,” the first says.

“He is young--”

“We are far too late--”

“Will he live?”

Rick seizes, his body convulsing. It’s too much; far too much. And he’s alone; he’s so horribly alone--

“Maybe,” the first voice says. “But I do not -- I just can not -- I do not--”

-o-

“--know,” Rick protests to no one in particular. He’s tired and he’s frustrated and no one seems to listen to him. “One second, I feel like it all makes sense, the next I’m right back at square one where I started three years ago.”

Michael frowns at him, as if he’s genuinely disappointed. “Have we ever let you down when you were really in need?”

“Yes!” Rick says, for the thousandth time. “Yes, yes and yes. Because you guys are still assuming you know what I need, and you’re always assuming that you’re right even when you’re not. I can’t spend the rest of my career being the new guy.”

“It’s suicide, Martinez,” Michael continues with a shake of his head. “You can’t do it.

“Can’t what?” Rick asks. “Be a spy? Do the job I was trained to do?”

“Remember who’s in charge,” Michael reminds him.

“Like you remember that Higgins’ is in charge? Like you remember that there’s a hierarchy at all?” Rick all but yells. He throws his arms out. “You can’t pick and choose everything.”

Casey shrugs. “This one,” he says with a nod. “It’s going to be all on you.”

“Which one?” Rick asks. “And how am I ever supposed to know? When will you guys ever just let me in?”

Billy purses his lips. “It’s not what we do, it’s why.

“Why?” Rick asks. “You mean you’re not just doing this to torture me? Give me a little breathing room and then pull it away? Make me do all the hard work and then pull me out at the last second? I am an integral part of our missions--”

“It’s not always about the mission,” Michael says with a strange tilt of his head, as if Rick should know this by now. As if Rick should understand.

But Rick doesn’t understand. All he knows is that he’s put in three good years, and he’s still the rookie. All he knows is that his team is the best at what they do and damn near impossible to make sense of. All he knows is that they’ll always do the right thing but in all the wrong ways.

“I can do this,” Rick insists. “I’m already doing this.”

His team looks at him, though. Almost apologetic.

“What?” Rick demands. “Tell me what I’m missing!”

But his team starts to fade, growing smaller and fainter from in front of his eyes.

“No, you can’t do this,” Rick says. “You can’t take me this far and then leave me without answers!”

That’s what they do, of course. And Rick’s not surprised, but he’s frustrated. So damn frustrated that he can hardly think. It pounds between his ears, pulsing with his heart, the injustice of it all. The complete idiocy of it all. Three years, and this is what he has. Three years, and he’s proven himself to everyone but the three people who matter most.

He realizes now where he’s at; he’s at a funeral but the open casket shows himself inside, face gray and drawn with his hands folded. His team is wearing plain black suits and simple ties. They look older, worn down. Michael’s eyes are dull, and there is no smile on Billy’s face. Casey walks stooped over just a little as they stop by the casket.

“I’m sorry,” Michael says.

“It shouldn’t have been you,” Billy murmurs.

“There are some things we can’t fight,” Casey concludes.

Then, they bow their heads and look down as they turn toward the aisle and walk out.

Gaping, Rick stands at the foot of the casket, cold ice in the pit of his stomach now. He’s lightheaded, lighter still. As if he could float away.

The rest of the mourners come, and the little old ladies tut. “Our roots,” they say with a disparaging glance at Rick’s corpse, “are what make us strong.”

Adele comes last, reaching out and grasping his limp fingers. “They might treat you like the new guy for a lot of reasons,” she murmurs. “Just be sure you want this because you want a new role. Not a new role on your team.”

She presses a kiss to his hand and then lets go.

When she leaves, Rick’s the only one left. He stands next to the casket and looks down at himself. He’s too young to be dead. In everything, he never thought--

The ODS always wins.

Except, it seems, when they don’t.

Rick’s not ready, though. He may never be ready.

He shakes his head, the protest forming in the back of his throat. “No,” he says, breathing starting to quicken. “No, no, no, no.”

No one can hear him; no one is left to listen. Desperation builds, and panic blossoms in his chest. “No!” he yells. “Not yet! For the love of God--”

-o-

“--not yet,” he says, the words on his lips as he startles awake.

This time, though, he’s really awake. His head is a little fuzzy, and everything hurts but he’s struck with the sudden clarity that he’s been missing. Time has passed, though he’s not sure how much, and the last clear thing he knows is that he was bit by a snake.

The memory jars him, and he sits up with a shock, looking down at his arm as if he still expects the snake to be wriggling there.

It’s not. It’s not.

The shock of that is a bit overwhelming, and it takes Rick another long moment to comprehend what the clean white bandage probably indicates.

That’s he’s alive. That he’s okay. That somehow he got bitten by a poisonous snake in the Amazon rainforest with no supplies and no backup and managed to survive.

The ODS has a knack for the impossible, but this seems exceptional, even for them.

The fever is mostly gone, and if he feels a little hot, it’s nothing he can’t attribute to the forest heat. He has full feeling in his limbs, and while his mouth is dry and his lips are cracked, he doesn’t feel that bad. Tired, sore, but really mostly hungry.

But food isn’t really the issue. As Rick blinks a few times, he vaguely recognizes the room. It’s not the hotel, obviously, and it’s no other place Rick knows from the mission as he’d planned it. Still, he’s seen it before, and he knows it, but he’s not sure why.

Then again, he’s fairly confident that most of what he’s experienced over the last few hours (or days) has been hallucinations.

Most, but not all. Because the dirt floors and simple structure are familiar. He remembers his team here with him; he remembers men with medicine.

He remembers a vicious drug dealer taking pity on him.

Rick’s stomach sinks with sudden trepidation.

Of everything, he’d probably hoped that part was a hallucination more than the rest. That his team hadn’t risked everything and taken him to the village with some half-baked cover story and a desperate plea for mercy from a man who killed his way to the top of a cartel by the age of 35.

With difficulty, Rick sits up, swinging his legs over the edge of his cot. The room spins for a moment, and when he finally gets his legs beneath him, his vision dims precariously. He takes a few staggering steps, and when he peaks out the door, what he sees confirms his worst fears.

Not that he’s been bitten by a snake and almost died.

But that he’s in a village controlled by a maniac and his team is nowhere to be found.